How A 'News Desert' Contributed To A New Jersey Candidate's Underdog Win

Last month I wrote about the state of the newspaper industry, which has essentially collapsed over the last decade or so:

“Gutted newsrooms are unable to perform their most basic functions, like covering the police beat. Or investigating allegations of corruption. Or staffing the statehouse. And much more. The few reporters who remain — newsroom employment declined by half between 2008 and 2018 — are tired, beleaguered, overworked, underpaid.”

This situation is universal, at least at every newsroom that’s not TheNew York Times, TheWashington Post, TheWall Street Journal and maybe one or two others. The emergence of “news deserts” and “ghost newspapers” — shells of their former selves ” — dramatically affect what people in local markets know about their communities. They correspond with lower voter turnoutincreased polarization, and a general erosion of civic engagementMisinformation proliferates.



Now consider this report from TheWashington Post last week. A long-shot New Jersey State Senate candidate, a truck driver who never held public office and spent $153 on his campaign, defeated the state senate president in the election on November 2.

It was kind of a feel-good story. It made national news.

The candidate, Republican Edward Durr, “built his bare-bones campaign at the grassroots level, walking door-to-door throughout the district, wearing jeans and tennis shoes and introducing himself to voters,” wrote in a gushing profile. “In ads, Durr is hopping down from his commercial-grade truck or revving the engine on his motorcycle, appearing like the quintessential suburban dad — and in stark contrast to [State Senate President Steve] Sweeney, often besuited and photographed over lecterns in the state capital.”

However, it turns out Durr has a history of racist and incendiary comments on social media, but no one was paying attention. Until after he won.

Durr’s comments are of the usual variety of angry bigotry commonly spewed on social media.

The incumbent U.S. senator from New Jersey is a “pedophile,” Durr said. COVID is “the China virus.” An “influx of #illegalAliens” is spreading disease, in Durr’s view. The vice president of the United States got where she is because of her gender and race, he opined. Islam is a “false religion,” from Durr’s perspective. The comments are so common in the toxic cesspool of social media that they become predictable.

One of the media’s basic functions is to serve as a watchdog, the WaPo article notes. “But in Durr’s case, the watchdogs failed to bark for years.”

“Years of cutbacks and consolidation among news organizations have left many communities without vigorous local coverage,” the article notes. “Hundreds of newspapers have folded during the past two decades — mostly small weeklies that focused on local issues.”

The “ghost” newspapers try to report on broad territories with hollowed-out staffs. Or the news deserts leave no reporting at all. The three newspapers that still cover South Jersey list a combined total of 13 reporters on their staffs, all covering a four-county region with more than 1 million people.

Over the last 16 years, 2,100 newspapers have disappeared, leaving 1,800 communities with no local journalism at all, according to University of North Carolina research. Since 2018, according to UNC, 300 newspapers closed, another 6,000 journalists employed by newspapers vanished, and print newspaper circulation declined by 5 million.

Durr’s story is the inevitable result.

For his part, Durr told WaPo — again totally predictably — he’s “a passionate guy, and I sometimes say things in the heat of the moment. If I said things in the past that hurt anybody’s feelings, I sincerely apologize.”

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